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Chopsticks: Bonsai's Most Versatile Tool

By Will Heath, USA
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Photograph by Will Heath

Chopsticks were invented over 5000 years ago in China and as is commonly believed, they evolved from Asian man's use of sticks to retrieve food from the fire. In order to conserve fuel which became scarce, food would be cut into smaller pieces that enabled it to cook faster using less fuel and eliminating the need for knifes.

Confucius is credited with advancing the use of chopsticks with his teaching that, "The honorable and upright man keeps well away from both the slaughterhouse and the kitchen. And he allows no knives on his table." His aversion to knifes at the dining table no doubt fueled the popularity of chopsticks in China.

It is believed that by 500 AD chopsticks had spread to many other Asian countries such as Japan, Korea, and Vietnam and soon to the rest of Asia as well. I believe that when Penjing was in it's infancy that the chopstick quickly found its place as an always handy, inexpensive, and versatile tool. When The Japanese first learned of bonsai from China, it is likely that the use of chopsticks as tools was also introduced. Considering this, the chopstick would be one of the first tools ever used with Penjing and Bonsai and it is certainly the only one that has traveled throughout the ages with the art, while remaining virtually unchanged.

Chopsticks varied little from country to country, Japan once used chopsticks for mainly ceremonial purposes before the practicality of using them as an eating utensil caught on. These Japanese chopsticks were commonly joined at one end and used like a pair of tweezers. Although bamboo was and still is used mostly for chopsticks because of it's resistance to fire, fast, straight growth, and its affordability, many other materials have been used from gold and silver to ivory and exotic woods. It was once wrongly thought that silver chopsticks would turn black if they came in contact with poisoned food.

In the following article I will show many of the ways in which chopsticks are used in the horticultural care and maintenance of Bonsai and also in the design and styling of such as well. I will deal mostly with bamboo chopsticks as they are inexpensive and commonly readily available.

In the following article I will show many of the ways in which chopsticks are used in the horticultural care and maintenance of Bonsai and also in the design and styling of such as well. I will deal mostly with bamboo chopsticks as they are inexpensive and commonly readily available.

The history of chopsticks above was unintentionally plagiarized from the Asian Art Mall ( Full credit for the history should be attributed to them. The introduction above has been left on-line with full permission from the original source.

A few words on this mistake and a link to a public apology can be seen here

The article below is by Will Heath.

Bonsai's Water Gauge

Many beginners, who have not yet reached the level where they can tell when a tree needs water by the weight of the container, color of the soil, or knowledge of the Bonsai have long used chopsticks as a water gauge for Bonsai.

Chopstick useage as a water gauge.
Photograph by Will Heath

Experienced enthusiasts still use chopsticks in growing boxes, large pots, and deep pots such as cascades where the pot is too heavy to lift or the soil mass is too deep to accurately determine the moisture content by other means.

By inserting a chopstick into the soil down past the root level, halfway between the trunk and the edge of the pot, and removing it daily a person can actually "see" the moisture level by observing the dampness of the wood. Further inspection will also reveal that the chopstick will be damper at the tip than at the root level and drier toward the surface of the soil. This is a great way to observe how and where your soil holds water.

Using chopsticks as a water gauge also works well for freshly collected trees that are placed in larger growing boxes where multiple chopsticks can be placed around the box in order to monitor water retention of the whole area. In situations where the tree is potted with some or all of its original soil around the root mass, a chopstick placed inside this old soil and another placed outside of the root mass in the new soil can tell when both areas, each retaining water differently, needs to be watered, either together of separately.

For smaller Bonsai such as Shohin or Mame and for shallow pots the chopstick can be cut to size using concave cutters. Many people will cut the chopstick so that only 1/8 of an inch protrudes from the soil level, this keeps the chopstick unobtrusive while still allowing enough to pinch and remove from the pot. I usually soak mine in left over coffee for a few days, which will dye them a more visually pleasing darker brown.

The chopstick can also easily be split using a concave cutter in order to decrease the size and make it less noticeable. I find that this makes it much easier to use in a smaller sized Bonsai or accent as it does not disrupt the soil as much and it is easier to determine the moisture content of small pots on the rough, split edge.

There are many ways to split a chopstick, but concave cutters do a quick, efficient job and they are always handy.

Valuable Re-potting Tool

Of all the uses for chopsticks, its usefulness in re-potting is most likely the best known and the most used. A chopstick is an excellent tool for loosening the root mass of a Bonsai and when used in conjunction with a steam of water from a hose, it is hard to find anything that works better.

Photograph by Will Heath

The wood of a chopstick is slightly flexible and resilient, making it strong enough for this tough job without tearing up the roots or snapping them as a root rake or hook can easily do.

Photograph by Will Heath

Chopsticks come in many shapes, sizes, and with differently shaped tips. Keeping a few different tips, finishes and point shapes around will assure you always have the perfect tool for the job. For larger Bonsai, a blunt tip on a laminated chopstick will give you the strength needed to pry thicker roots, while a chopstick with a more pointed tip is perfect for Shohin or Mame Bonsai.

For many small Shohin and Mame Bonsai a stream of water is not necessary as the chopstick alone is sufficient to separate the root mass and to straighten out all but the worst problems. Using a chopstick that has a narrow tip is important, as this will allow you to reach behind and in between other roots to remove soil that would otherwise be unreachable. By refraining from spraying off the soil with a hose, you do not wash away beneficial fungus and microbes.

Photograph by Will Heath

Once the root mass is loosened and the roots are trimmed, a chopstick is very useful in spreading out the roots and combing them so that a radial pattern is formed, allowing any faults such as crossed or long roots to be seen and corrected.

This can be done when preparing a Bonsai to pot as well as once the root mass is set onto the soil, combing the roots in an even, radial shape to assure proper Nebari development before soil is added to cover them. Crossed roots can easily be corrected at this point.

Photograph by Will Heath

Once soil is added on top of the root mass then the chopstick once more proves its value as a tamping tool. Nothing beats a chopstick for working the fresh soil in and around the roots and making sure that there are no hidden air pockets around or below the root mass. Here again a finely pointed chopstick works very well for getting in between roots and around the edges of the root mass.

When creating forest or group plantings, many suggest making scaffolding out of chopsticks fastened to the bottom of the pot or tray. Then twist tie wires in the proper locations on these chopsticks. Now once you add soil to a level above the scaffolding, you have tie downs for securely fastening the trees into place.

Innovated Styling Tool

The ever handy and always useful chopstick is also valuable when styling a Bonsai, correcting faults, and shaping.

A piece of a chopstick makes a great spacer to separate roots or branches that are growing too close together that can't be wired for one reason or another. For wider spacing simply use electrical tape to fasten two chopsticks together to get double the width.

A good way to deal with a root that is too thick is to split it down the middle, making two thin roots out of one. Once split, seal with cut paste and use a chopstick struck in the soil at the point of the split in order to keep the two roots separated.

Roots that tend to grow upwards or bow upwards can often be corrected easily by wiring a chopstick over them to hold them down. In this manner wire marks from wiring the roots or disturbing the soil or other roots by digging is not a concern.

To bring the bowed roots to the surface level in this example a wire was fastened to one end of the chopstick, passed under the pot and twisted and tightened on the other end, effectively pressing the bowed roots back to the surface level. After a month or two, the chopstick can be removed.

Photograph by Will Heath

Photograph by Will Heath

The same technique shown above can also be used for attaching guy wires to a Bonsai when you do not want contact with the pot. Placing the chopstick under the pot, you can now fasten one end with wire to the trunk and the other end to the branch you wish to lower, tightening as needed. A better way sometimes is to fasten one end of the chopstick to the trunk or pot and then thread a piece of thin wire through a section of aquarium hose and loop it over the branch to be lowered. Be sure to put the aquarium hose against the bark to protect it. Then loop the wire under the other end of the chopstick and twist the ends together. Now you can use a section of a chopstick to place between the wires that form the loop and turn it like a crank. This will twist the wire, lowering the branch with each twist. Every so often you can put the chopstick section back in and give it another crank or two. This makes for an efficient turnbuckle arrangement.

Chopsticks also make for natural splints, as they are straight and easily sized to the purpose. When replacing the apex on a tree, sometimes using a piece of a chopstick for a splint and tying it to the lower trunk and then to the new apex with grafting tape, pipe cleaners, or cloth is easier and better than wiring. I have had good success in using this method on a branch that has been partially broken, the chopstick keeps it immobile until it can heal and serves as a reminder to be careful with that branch.

Although I have covered just a few of the many uses for chopsticks with Bonsai, we have seen that they are quite a versatile tool worthy of any artist's toolbox. Besides being relatively inexpensive and easy to obtain, they have a tradition in the history of Bonsai and Penjing that deserves to be carried on.

Will Heath is an editor and co-founder of the Art of Bonsai project, the Knowledge of Bonsai forums, and the show chairman of the Four Seasons Bonsai Club of Michigan. His energy, devotion to promoting bonsai as an art form, prolific writing ability, and stubborn refusal to compromise his beliefs is well known to all. His educational articles and humorous stories have been published in Bonsai Today, the ABS Journal, on the web, and in newsletters around the world.

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